“Stories of Abundance”: How Women’s Foundation California is Advancing Gender Justice Through Narrative Change. An Interview with Bia Vieira
FRIDAY, MARCH 12, 2021
BY EDDY GONZALEZ
Women’s Foundation California is a statewide, publicly supported foundation committed to realizing racial, economic, and gender justice. Recently, the Foundation has taken a strong interest in the emergent field of “culture change” to help advance its vision of justice by influencing and reimagining our nation’s most pervasive narratives and beliefs. For Women’s Foundation of California, investing in long-term culture change has become as critical as engaging in policy and advocacy work.
“We recognized that policy and legislative action were not enough to erase the disadvantages that women, girls, transgender, and gender-nonconforming people — especially those from communities of color and low-income communities — face in our society,” stated Bia Vieira, Chief Strategist of Programs at the Women’s Foundation. “The reality is we need to change attitudes and build broad public support before and while we achieve legislative change, or we risk regressing and fighting an uphill battle.”
The Foundation decided to establish the California Gender Justice Funders Network, a collaboration with a diverse group of funders, including Blue Shield of California Foundation, Fondation CHANEL, and The California Endowment, to advance the national conversation on gender justice and liberation. The Network is the first collaborative focused on the intersection of culture change and gender justice and convened by Women’s Foundation and its state partner, Philanthropy California.
The Network’s first project was launching the Culture Change Fund — a $10 million initiative focused on using narrative power to change public perceptions on a broad range of gender justice issues, including racism, pay-equity, gender-based violence, maternal health, contraception, and broader reproductive justice and gender justice matters. The Fund also explores how funders can support grassroots organizations and movement leaders in employing culture as a tool to change the hearts and minds of communities.
In March 2020, SCG connected with Bia Vieira to discuss the Culture Change Fund’s launch and their initial learnings from its research phase, Story at Scale. As the COVID outbreak took hold of the world, SCG paused the conversation to allow both organizations to focus on the pandemic response. This year, we reconnected with Bia to learn more about how the Culture Change Fund shifted its priorities in response to crises, the campaigns it supported during a critical election year, and why investing in long-term culture change continues to be necessary.
How would you define gender justice?
BV: Gender justice is a framework used to bring about the fair and equitable treatment of people of all genders to achieve joy, justice, and dignity. To this day, Black and brown communities, transwomen, low-income women, and many other groups continue to experience unprecedented levels of criminalization, poverty, and other forms of systemic violence. We know that the pandemic has worsened many of the inequities those communities were already facing. Gender justice serves people directly impacted by gender-based oppression and ensures that they have access to the resources they need to live their lives to the fullest.
What inspired the California Gender Justice Network to create the Culture Change Fund?
BV: The Culture Change Fund idea stemmed from the feedback our funders received from their partners, who noticed they were entirely focused on policy efforts and were missing strategies to connect with folks at the heart level. Community leaders asked funders to support civic engagement work and build their capacity to tell stories to change minds. After these conversations, the Gender Justice Network began exploring storytelling’s potential to build a bridge between the people and the issues funders were trying to address. The Fund emerged from the Network asking, What does it mean to do culture change work? How can we use it to enact enduring change? And how can we support our partners in doing that work?
Why do you believe storytelling is an important tool for women, the LGBTQ+ community, and other folks from historically underrepresented backgrounds?
BV: Stories humanize us. Getting to know someone’s journey, where they came from, and what they’ve done is incredibly moving. However, the stories of trans and non-binary folks, poor communities, people of color, immigrants, and many others are not prevalent. When people’s experiences are not shared, it becomes easier to dehumanize and “other” them. Stories bring us together, and it becomes harder to ignore or erase a person when you feel a connection to them. Uplifting historically marginalized communities’ experiences helps bolster the cultural narrative that everyone deserves to access a fulfilling and just life.
The first stage of the Culture Change Fund was a research phase called Story at Scale. What did you learn in your preliminary research?
BV: The Culture Change Fund began with a robust research phase called Story at Scale, a narrative research project to provide artists and advocates with data-driven insights to create campaigns and stories to advance their efforts. For about a year, we worked with the preeminent researchers on culture change and narrative change work, Liz Mann and Ricky Conway, to discover the tools and stories with the potential to resonate with people across the nation. Our researchers conducted a national survey with about 7,000 participants alongside a set of more in-depth interviews that asked questions regarding pay equity, gender identity, leadership, and other justice-related topics. We intentionally created an inclusive research process by actively including people with lived experiences, including queer people, communities of color, and folks from different financial realities.
While our initial findings showed that many people care about gender justice and equity issues, it also revealed that many other folks still hold rigid and conventional beliefs about gender norms. Nevertheless, we were encouraged by a messaging test we ran with fourteen different videos. One of the videos that received the most traction was Ultraviolet, which featured a trans, non-binary individual reading a letter to their father. Regardless of your knowledge or familiarity with non-binary folks, the video got traction because it was fundamentally about a child writing a heartfelt message to their parent. While we still have to reckon with the contrasting ideologies and beliefs represented in our data, the traction Ultraviolet received made us hopeful that we can sway people through storytelling.
What tools and strategies emerged from the Story at Scale research?
BV: We need more than one person’s account, one headline, or one communication strategy to shift culture. We need to fill our cultural landscape with stories from folks who have been historically silenced, erased, and not represented. The Story at Scale research culminated with a new set of tools to help tell underrepresented communities’ stories and achieve culture change. The tools were the Story Platform, a core narrative to achieve gender justice, and the Story Pillars, a set of six “storytelling areas” to help artists and activists craft stories that can influence the public. We hope organizations use the Story Platform and Pillars to develop effective storytelling campaigns to reach critical audiences and further their organizing, advocacy, and narrative efforts.
How did the Culture Change Fund adapt its implementation phase in response to the crises of 2020?
BV: We began implementing the completed Story at Scale research in March 2020 alongside Harness, The Center for Cultural Power, The League, and IllumiNative. These four organizations are our anchor partners who have developed this project with us from the start. As the COVID pandemic intensified globally, we knew we needed to resource our anchor partners and the Fund’s other grantees more quickly and substantially. We awarded $2 million to help our grantees navigate the crises and pivot their storytelling campaigns. The pandemic forced all of us to lean into experimentation, rethink what was mandatory, and innovate whenever possible. We continued to virtually convene a community of practice with funders, activists, artists, and researchers to build a living library of resources and host learning lessons, half of which have focused on sharing and implementing the Story at Scale research. Additionally, we have continued the Culture Shift 101 series to apply the tools of Cultural Strategy.
Can you share some of the campaigns and projects your partners launched in 2020?
- The Center for Cultural Power produced a beautiful gender justice coloring book titled, All Bodies Deserve: Creating the Future of Us distributed in digital and physical formats. The Center invited various gender-expansive artists to contribute to the coloring book to capture and celebrate different genders, bodies, and expressions.
- Prism produced six gender justice stories by writers of color based on the Story Pillars. They also developed Sex Positivity and the Arts, a series that explored “how sex-positivity embodies and intersects with liberation and self-determination.”
- She The People produced a 6-part docuseries following founder, political strategist Aimee Allison and four community organizers on a mission to mobilize one million women of color across America to vote in 2020.
- IllumiNative, in collaboration with the Center for Native American Youth and the Native Organizers Alliance, launched The Indigenous Futures Project (IFP) to “gather and disseminate critical information and strategies about the priorities and needs of Native communities in preparation for the 2020 election.”
- Culture Surge was a collaboration between all four of our anchor partners that served as an accelerator for building narrative power before the 2020 election. Cultural Surge connected a broad coalition of changemakers to advance critical narratives across issues and campaigns and maximize the cultural impact that could lead to change.
Many of your partners launched campaigns focused on the 2020 election. Did the election and the insurrection on the Capitol prompt any reflections on the narratives currently taking hold of our culture?
BV: The last administration fostered a powerful national narrative that activated and emboldened white supremacy. The administration told a segment of the population that this country belongs to them and that other groups are trying to take it away. This narrative lends itself to violence by stoking racial division; people become protective of their group and aggressive toward anyone who falls outside it. The narrative of “me first” and “me against the world” is still present and growing. Advocates for racial justice and equity will need culture change to create cracks in this dangerous narrative, especially in 2022. There are many entry points — we can talk about community, shared values, our family, and our neighborhoods to craft compelling messages. It’s important to understand that culture change work is not an endpoint; it’s an ongoing, long-term strategy.
How can the SCG network support the efforts of the Gender Justice Network and the Culture Change Fund?
BV: The intersection of culture change and gender justice is still a nascent field. There are many opportunities to create new initiatives together that advance and transform gender justice through cultural strategies. Grantmakers are always welcome to join the California Gender Justice Funders Network. We are also still looking for partners for the Culture Change Fund. We want to ensure that there’s longevity to culture change work and that it continues to be supported by a robust set of philanthropic and community-based partners. You can email Jane Lin, email@example.com at Women’s Foundation to learn more. Folks interested in learning more about our work can join our many upcoming community learning opportunities.